The Academic Benefits of Arts Education in Schools

Public schools in the U.S. face a monumental task: educating an incredibly large and diverse population of students. A report from The National Center for Education Statistics shows that just over 50 million students enrolled in public schools in the fall of 2018. Of those students, 24 million were Caucasian, 7.8 million were African-American, 14 million were Hispanic, 2.6 million were Asian, 1.6 million were of two or more races, 0.5 million were Native American/Alaskan, and 0.2 million were Pacific Islanders. In addition to racial and ethnic diversity, these 50 million students come from a wide range of social, economic, and home environments.

Public schools include rural kids, urban kids, suburban kids, and everyone in between. They teach kids of low socioeconomic status alongside kids of high socioeconomic status. They welcome kids of all spiritual backgrounds and traditions. And – with some exceptions – anyone who knows a public schoolteacher knows they’re one hundred percent committed to every child they meet.

They want all the children under their care to succeed.

Everyone wants kids to succeed, really. That’s why, roughly twenty years ago, when educators and policy-makers realized our students were falling behind students from other countries in important academic areas – math and science specifically – we increased our focus on those areas in a rush to close the academic achievement gap between our students and European and Asian students. We went all-in on STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM-focused charter schools appeared. State and federal agencies prioritized STEM-focused funding and grant programs. Collectively, we began to close the gap. Unfortunately, while we focused on closing the STEM gap, we diverted funding from programs that support academic achievement across all areas: the fine and performing arts.

Theater and Music: Higher Grades for Middle School Students

Studies performed in the past document the positive effect of musical training on mathematics, spatial-temporal ability, reading, and IQ scores. For a quick look at the positive effect of musical training on mathematics, read our previous post here. While these studies offered solid evidence of the value of arts education in schools, they had limitations. First, they focused primarily on music. Second, they were snapshots, as opposed to long-range studies. Third, they used relatively small sample sizes. A recent publication, however, addresses all those limitations. Researchers followed thirty-thousand students in Florida over a ten-year period. They began collecting data on students at the age of four, examined key metrics during elementary school, and then compared participation in dance, music, drama, and/or visual arts classes against overall academic and grade point averages (GPAs) when students reached sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.

The research team sought to counter the argument that students from high-income families and students who are already high academic achievers are more likely to take fine and performing arts classes, which potentially skewed results in previous studies. To address this concern, researchers focused on a diverse population of students:

  • 61% Latino
  • 32% African-American
  • 55% English Language Learners (ELL)
  • 81% free/reduced lunch

Their findings support the idea that arts education benefits students across all academic areas, regardless of socioeconomic status or previous academic achievement. They found that, in comparison to students who did not, students who participated in arts elective courses – especially those who took music and theater classes – showed the following:

  • Higher overall GPAs
  • Better scores in math
  • Higher scores in reading
  • Decreased chance of suspension

A Key Takeaway

Of note to educators and policymakers is the correlation between fine/performing arts education and academic achievement. The GPA numbers tell the story. As noted above, previous research documents the positive relationship between arts education and math, reading, and IQ scores. This study, in contrast, included evidence to support the idea that arts education has a net positive result in general, overall achievement, not just math, reading, and cognition.

Implications for the Future

Studies like this reinforce the idea that in order to close the academic achievement gap between students in the U.S. and other countries, we’d be wise to prioritize arts education alongside STEM education in our future funding conversations. The equation presented in this study is simple: arts education correlates strongly with higher academic achievement. Which, of course, is our long-term goal. It’s true that the future of employment looks more and more technology-driven with each passing year. On the other hand, it’s also true that corporations both large and small recognize the need for a well-rounded workforce. They need a workforce conversant not only in technical fields, but also a workforce that’s socially and emotionally literate. These are skills which students learn by default when they study the arts.

Taken as a whole, arts in education should not be a hard sell. What’s been obvious to many educators for years now has one more set of empirical data – including thirty-thousand students over ten years – to add credence to the case that arts education supports, rather than impedes, overall academic achievement.